Instrument Biography: The Cornetto
The cornetto is a wooden wind instrument widely used throughout Europe from the 15th through the 17th centuries. It’s also called the cornett, which is not to be confused with the trumpet-like instrument called the cornet. A hybrid between a woodwind (like the recorder) and a brass instrument (like the trumpet), it was a long and slender tube, curved to one side, and had open finger holes. Sound was produced by blowing into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, like that of the trumpet.
The combination of the mouthpiece and finger holes results in difficulties of intonation (pitch) and embouchure (mouth positions). Once mastered, it’s extremely agile and has a range of dynamics and expressions that span between brassy trumpet sounds to incredibly sweet flute-like tones.
After 1500, there are records of cornetti (that’s the plural of cornetto) and trombones performing together with human voices at secular feasts, in the theater, and during Mass. Just a few decades earlier, loud and soft instruments would never have been combined. (See Instrument Biography: The Harp for more about this concept.) Wind bands weren’t excluded from the Catholic church until after 1500. They were welcomed back by the Lutherans, but that’s another story for another day.
In Medieval times, the cornetto was not part of social life the way the harp and lute were. Its use was limited to shepherds calling flocks and the tower watchman announcing the arrival of strangers. Larger horns were used to signal foot soldiers in war. But then it got fancier.
Its popularity increased during the Middle Ages. By then, trumpeters had formed a highly privileged guild that only reluctantly played with other instruments. The various sizes of trumpets and trombones made a pretty sound, but because the treble trombone (yup, treble) had a tiny voice, trumpet and trombone choirs let cornetti play with them.
The Church of St. Mark in Venice was the center of musical culture for most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, starting in the 11th century. Innovations abounded there, and it’s probably due to the gathering of great minds there that much of the music from those times is preserved.
The cornetto is mentioned in “Aucassin et Nicolette,” which was an anonymous 12th or 13th century musical play from France. In England, the cornetto was one of the principal types of wind instrument in the 13th century, along with recorder, shawms, double whistle-flutes, tabor-pipe, the horn, bugle, trumpet, organ, and bagpipe.
Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377) mentions the grant cornet d’Allemaigne (the grand cornetto of the Germans, also known as the Zink) in several of his poems, most notably his “Prise d’Alexandrie” and “Remede de Fortune.” (I think it was a recording of “Remede de Fortune” that got me hooked on Machaut in the first place.)
Giovanni Gabrieli (c1555-1612) published a collection of motets, Mass movements, and madrigals as “Concerti” (a very early use of the term). He wanted them performed by voices, two organs, cornetti, and trombones, plus one or two violins.
It’s not known from what date the cornetto began to provide support for choral music, but this became its main function by the end of the Renaissance, notably in the Venetian polychoral music of Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli in the 16th century.
Two cornetti were frequently used in consorts with three sackbuts (a form of trombone), and often doubled a church choir’s voices. By 1568, a first-rate permanent ensemble of instrumentalists was assembled at the Church of St. Mark in Venice, centering on cornetti and sackbuts and also including violin (which was a new instrument) and bassoon. Additional players were hired on major feast days, when as many as two dozen instrumentalists performed, alone or together with the choir of twenty to thirty voices.
Michael Praetorius didn’t care for the sound of the cornetto, describing it as “most unlovely and bullocky.” He knew lots of stuff about music, but I have to disagree with him about the sound.
The cornetto remained physically unaltered between the 17th century and the first half of the 18th, and it was a favorite in the Baroque period. The squiggly version called the serpent was particularly popular in France, providing the contrabass in wind ensembles. At the end of the 18th century, the serpent played an increasingly larger part in military bands.
Many examples of this instrument are in the Brussels Conservatory museum, mostly from late 16th century Venice, where Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo Galilei’s father) said that the best cornettos of his day were made.
The invention of the trumpet during the Classical period (1730-1820) provided the fanfare for the end of the cornetto’s popularity. The cornetto was harder to play than the trumpet because of its small mouthpiece, it was quieter and less limber, and composers simply stopped composing for it.
Records of early cornettos say that they were made of natural horn, which is where we get the term “horn” for later brass instruments with a similar mouthpiece. Later cornetti were made of wood. The instrument is a hybrid between a woodwind and a brass instruments in that the shape, fingering, and material was like that of a woodwind, but the mouthpiece was like that of a brass instrument.
When the large German herhorn was pierced with finger holes in the 10th or 11th century, it became known as a cornetto or Zink. Cornetti were either straight and turned from a single piece of fruit wood, or curved. Curved cornetti were made of two hollowed pieces of wood glued together, and then a leather or parchment sheath was drawn over it to make it air-tight.
Straight cornetti that end in a carved dog’s or wolf’s head appear in some 11th-13th century paintings There are some surviving examples like this in Italy. Other iconography from other countries in the Middle Ages shows both straight and curved instruments being used.
Folk cornetti are still used in Baltic countries and parts of Russia. They are bound in birch bark, have four or more finger holes, and are variants on the Swedish cow horn.
Unlike other types of horns, the cornetto has finger holes bored into the length of the tube, like a flute. (Other horns have valves or slides.) The number of holes varied, but six was most common. With over-blowing, harmonics allowed a full octave or more in range, even with only six holes.
Typically there were six finger holes and a thumbhole, gathered comfortably at the end nearest to the mouthpiece. The instrument often curved to the right, with the player’s right hand placed lowermost, although many specimens are left-handed, curving the opposite way and with the hands reversed. The majority of finger holes are on the top side, with a thumb hole on the bottom nearest to the mouthpiece. When there were six holes, it was well suited for playing melodies.
Fingering is similar to other woodwinds of the period, although it is different in the upper octave. Only a few fingering charts survive.
There were a variety of sizes and shapes, especially during the Renaissance, when families of instruments were popular.
- Cornettino: The highest pitched and smallest in size, was a fourth or fifth higher than the treble cornetto.
- Cornetto: The soprano voice. It was about 24 inches long and was also called the treble cornetto.
- Cornetto muto: Both straight and rounded forms had a built-in mouthpiece, a wider throat, and narrower bore than the traditional cornetto but also played the treble part. It was a quiet instrument, suitable for consort playing but not outdoor work.
- Cornetto torto: A curved, octagonal instrument. It was often tuned to F, a fifth lower than the treble cornetto.
- Tenor cornetto (the lizard): A double-curved instrument, tuned a fifth lower than the soprano. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) disliked its sounds and mentioned it specifically. Its wide bore makes it similar to a serpent, and therefore better for blending with voices or in a consort (a group of like instruments in various voice ranges. This list of cornetti, if there were at least one from each—or most—type of cornetto, could form a consort, for instance) rather than on its own. I don’t know why It’s also called the lizard, other than that it’s smaller than a serpent but looked similar.
- Bass cornetto: A larger-cornetto, pitched a fourth or fifth below the tenor. The bass cornetto was popular in France but was also played in Germany at the end of the 16th century.
- Serpent: In Italy and France, the serpent was the great contrabass cornetto, shaped like a double-S in order to bring the finger holes within the player’s reach. The serpent supplanted the bass cornetto in the 17th century.
There are three basic shapes: curved, straight, and double curved (S-shaped).
The simple curved shape was most common and was used for the cornettino, the cornetto, the cornetto torto, and the bass cornetto. The soprano (or treble) instrument was about 24 inches long and made of a single block of wood, usually plum, pear, or maple. The block of wood was cut into a curved shape and then split lengthwise. A conical bore was carved out of each half and the pieces were glued back together. The exterior was planed to an octagonal profile and the longitudinal joins secured by a series of bindings and a covering of black leather or parchment. Most virtuosos played the curved treble version, and in their hands, it competed with the violin or the voice in complexity.
The straight treble cornetto is made of wood, usually yellow boxwood, with a conical bore, like the curved cornetto, but turned on the outside to a circular shape, usually without ornamentation. The finger holes and mouthpiece are just like the curved version. This was likely to be the least common type, although it was widely used before 1550, especially in Germany.
The cornetto muto is made like the straight cornetto, but its mouthpiece was not detachable. The mouthpiece was turned out of the same wood as the body at the top end of the instrument. The conical cup of the mouthpiece merges into the bore, usually without a sharp break between the two sections, causing a softening and veiling of the tone quality.
The tenor cornetto was pitched a fifth lower than the treble and had an extra finger hole that was covered by a key, which was used by the little finger of the lower hand. The tenor was 30-50 inches long, generally made with a double curve (an S-shape) with the finger holes on the inside facet of the lower bend. The bell pointed downward and to the front, not outward and to the side, like the treble. It was mainly used from 1550 to 1650, although it was popular in England only after the beginning of the 17th century.
The bass instrument, called the serpent, had a range that could be extended by over-blowing, of about two and a half octaves. French philosopher and theologian Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) estimated that a single serpent could equal 20 of the loudest singers but could also be played with the quietest chamber music. To overcome unreliable pitch and poor tone quality, each instrument only played in one key (specific sharps and flats), so to make it useful in consorts with more flexible instruments, the player had to have several versions. The serpent militaire and the serpent Fovielle were used in military music until they were displaced by the ophiclieide (like an elongated keyed bugle). The serpent disappeared from general use by the middle of the 19th century.
Parts written in alto and tenor clefs are only playable by the serpent. There are straight versions of this deep bass cornetto, but they’re rare.
The player blew into a cup-shaped mouthpiece, similar to that of a trumpet or a trombone. The mouthpiece is usually horn or ivory, regardless of the material for the rest of the instrument. The cup was placed against the corner of the mouth, with the central position only occasionally employed. The pitch can be affected by softening the lips against the mouthpiece. This special embouchure is tiring to play for any length of time, so cornetto parts are often substituted by violins.
A late 16th-century surviving instrument’s mouthpiece is horn and is half an inch wide. It’s similar to a small trumpet mouthpiece in the deep curvature of the cup, but the rim is very sharp. It resembles an acorn cup. Many paintings show this sort of cupped mouthpiece.
The socket for the mouthpiece, which is slightly tapered, was sometimes strengthened by an external brass ferule, and both the upper and lower ends of the instrument were occasionally adorned with silver mounts.
Mouthpieces were made of ebony, ivory, or horn, but it’s hard to know which are original because many of the surviving examples are replacements.
Tonguing reached a high degree of complexity with this instrument. There were instructions from Italians Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego (published in 1536) and Bartolomeo Bismantova (published in 1677) that discussed force and speed of tonguing, in an Italian school of articulation.
Unlike other instruments where it wasn’t necessary to articulate each note by tonguing (like the bagpipe), the cornetto required every note to be tongued, except for trills and some cadential ornaments (wiggly bits that mark the end of a phrase). Other wind instruments with a reed or a pipe embouchure have tonguing sounds that include te, ke and pe, but the cornetto uses le, re, and de, with te and re for faster passages. The transverse flute’s te-ke “double-tonguing” technique for fast passages was considered crude on the cornetto.
The tone quality is considered close to the human voice, especially the boy soprano, although I think modern reproductions sound more like a quiet trumpet crossed with a recorder. They could be played loudly or softly in every key—most other instruments of the period were not so versatile.
The kind of sound produced makes it hard to classify the instrument as a woodwind or a brass instrument. It’s hard to play because of the combination of woodwind shape and limited fingering with the brass instrument’s mouthpiece, which is probably why it lost popularity, as more agile instruments were invented. Modern brass instruments are longer than the cornetto and allow the use of harmonics, with slides or valves to control the pitch.
Cornettos were suitable for indoors and outdoors music, both sacred and secular, and could easily be substituted for the violin and vice versa. It was treated as a true virtuoso instrument, like for Monteverdi’s “Vespers.”
The name means “little horn” in Italian, suggesting an animal-horn ancestry for the instrument. There are cow-horned shaped instruments in Medieval pictures that might be cornetti. Some resemble horns that are still used by Scandinavian herdsmen. In Sweden., these instruments go back to the 10th century. In England, images of these horn instruments go back to the 11th century. The octagonal carved wooden form appears in the later 13th century.
Cornetto is the diminutive of the Italian “corno,” which is one of the smaller animal horns.
Germany, it was called the Zink, a Zinke being the smallest branch of a stag’s antlers. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink or gerade Zink. The cornetto torto was the krummer Zink.
The curved instrument was called the krummer Zink or the schwarzer Zink in German, and cornetto curvo, cornetto alto, or cornetto nero in Italian. The straight instrument was the gerade Zink in German and cornetto dritto in Italian. The cornetto muto was the stiller Zink in German and cornetto muto in Italian.
The tenor was the taille des cornets in French, the grosser Zink in German, and the corno torto or cornone in Italian. The bass cornetto is the basse des cornets in French and Basszink in German.
In England, it was called the cornett (with no O on the end). It was also called the cornet, but that’s an entirely different instrument in modern terms, made entirely of brass.
The rozhok (little horn) of the Vladimir and Tever districts in Russia are straight cornetti, with separate mouthpieces occasionally played off to the side, and come in two or more sizes. There may only be two centuries of the cornetto tradition in Russia.
From the 16th century:
- Andrea Gabrieli (c1515-1586)
- Giovanni Gabrieli (c1535-1612), who was Andrea’s nephew. I mentioned him in my piece on Thomas Tallis.
- Claudio Monteverdi (c1567-1643) wrote an amazing “Vespers” that features cornetti.
From the 17th century:
- Michael Praetorius (1571-1621)
- Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
- Johann Hermann Schein (1586-1630)
- Heinrich Schūtz (1586-1672)
- John Adson (c1587-1640) in “Courtly Masquing Ayres” in 1621
- Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654)
- Antonio Bertali (c1605-1669)
- Heinrich Schmeizer (c1620-1680)
- Matthew Lock (c1621-1677) in “Music for His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts” in 1661
- Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (c1644-1704)
- George Muffat (1653-1704)
- Johann Andreas Pachelbel (c1653-1706), although most famous for his “Canon in D,” he wrote loads of other things.
- Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)
From the 18th century:
- Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) used a pair of muto cornets in a requiem.
- Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht,” BMV 118, starring cornetti, but there are lots more pieces, too.
- Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used a serpent in his “Water Music” of 1717 and “Firework Music” of 1749. He also wrote “Tamerlano” to include cornetti in 1724.
- Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714- 1787) used the cornetto in “Orfeo et Euridice.”
From the 19th century
- Giocchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) used a serpent in “The Siege of Corinth.”
- Felix Mendelsohn (1809-1847) used a serpent in both “Meerestille” and “St. Paul.”
- Richard Wagner (1813-1883) used a serpent in “Rienzi.”
Augustin Schubinger of the court of Emperor Maximilian was a member of the famous Augsberg family of wind players in the 15th and early 16th century.
Girolamo Dalla Casa (d. 1601) was an Italian composer and member of the Venetian School at St. Mark’s in Venice.
Giovanni Bassano (c1558-1617) was virtuoso who played for Giovanni Gabrieli.
You can find recordings by living musicians Bruce Dickey, Doron Sherwin, Michael Colliver, Alan Dean, and more.
“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.
“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.
“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.